If you think technology is changing quickly, consider youth ministry.

Youth leaders say that the “old ways” of ministering to young people – from just five to 10 years ago – no longer work. Social media has exploded; smartphones are ubiquitous. Today’s youth see the world much differently than their counterparts of just a decade ago.

To help youth leaders navigate this fast-changing world, the annual Perkins School of Youth Ministry offers an array of innovative workshops and labs as well as practical instruction on the basics. This year’s event took place January 6–9 at Highland Park United Methodist Church’s Tolleson Family Center. Almost 200 youth ministers and workers from 11 states and 15 annual conferences traveled to Dallas for the annual event.

“We had a lot of new faces as well as lots of folks who’ve been with us a long time,” said Bart Patton, Perkins’ Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Education and conference coordinator. “The conference has evolved into a community of learning. If you’re really passionate about youth ministry, that might seem weird to the rest of the world. But here you’ll meet people who ‘get’ you and what you’re passionate about.”

Keynote speaker Reesheda Graham Washington, an author and entrepreneur, reflected on the conference theme of “Wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding lets us off the hook in really liberative ways,” she said. “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ The way is already there. We can shift from the drudgery of ‘making a way’ to a discovery process where we get to find Jesus over and over again. It’s easier to find a way than it is to make one.”

In addition to the keynote and worship sessions, participants chose from one of four tracks: the Foundations Track training covering ministry basics like curriculum, budgeting, organization, programming and safety; the Workshops Track covering selected topics related to practice of youth ministry, theology of youth ministry, care in youth ministry and congregational youth ministry; the Intensives Track for using design thinking in youth ministry contexts; or Youth Ministry Certification courses for those pursuing Certification in Youth Ministry through the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the UMC.

Help for a ‘Newbie’

This was the first time for Caitlin Snoddy, assistant youth director at Plymouth Park United Methodist Church in Irving, Texas, to attend PSYM.

“It was a really enriching, affirming experience,” she said. “I left knowing that I’m not alone. There are people with wisdom and knowledge who are ready to help a newbie like me. There’s always more to learn, and there are people out there to support you.”

Based on what she learned, Snoddy planned to immediately rework her church’s youth ministry’s Facebook and other social media, expanding them from platforms for simple announcements to spaces to create daily touch points with youth. She plans to post a Scripture, a short devotional or a few words of comfort and inspiration each day.

“I want to turn our social media into something that is going to feed our youth spiritually, even when they’re not here at the church,” she said.

Belinda “Be” Guinn, youth director at Jacksonville FUMC in Jacksonville, Ark., has been attending PSYM almost every year since 2005, missing only two years due to family events or other conflicts.

“As a youth minister, this conference fills my cup,” she said. “It refreshes me. And it’s a good reminder of the things that we might otherwise forget about. Not all of the youth I work with were raised in the church. We can’t assume they know about baptism or communion or who the Holy Spirit is.”

This year, she was especially intrigued by a lab led by Jeremy Steele, “How to Develop a Culture of Questions in Your Ministry.”

“It was a reminder that, even if we know the answers, we shouldn’t always supply the answers when youth have questions,” she said. “If they’re challenged to get out and research and look for their own answers, they’re more grounded. They have a better foundation.”

Design Thinking for Youth Ministry

A new workshop offered this year was the Youth Ministry Resource Design Lab, led by Sam Halverson and Nikki Donahoo. The program encouraged participants to tackle problems in youth ministry with design thinking, instead of relying on “how we’ve always done things.”

“We’ve seen that human-centered design thinking can be a real aid in ministry,” said Patton. “It’s an interdisciplinary approach focused on the user, which intersects technical feasibility and market feasibility with human desirability. We need to innovate new forms of youth ministry that aren’t merely programmatic or attractional. In the past, youth ministry was built on those two things. They don’t work anymore in producing mature, long-term disciples of Jesus.”

Patton added that design thinking is part of Perkins’ work with the Reboot Youth Ministry Initiative, which helped inform the curriculum at this year’s PSYM and vice versa. (Funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., Reboot is working with a starter cohort of 18 congregations to help foster and develop innovative ways to minister to youth.)

The workshop taught students how to bring ideas into action and to design plans for their youth ministry through collaboration, prototyping and innovation. Working in groups, participants learned tools like mind-mapping, feedback grid and empathy mapping. Each participant developed a product prototype that addresses a common youth ministry problem.

As a creativity exercise, participants experimented with markers, crayons, clay and other materials to create an object representing their idea for innovation.

Adrienne Harrell, Director of Student Ministries at Friendswood UMC in Friendswood, Texas, crafted a sphere filled with beads; using her phone’s flashlight, she made it appear to glow from within. The beads visualize the crowded, busy lives of today’s high school students.

“Our kids are so overscheduled with sports and activities,” she said. “Youth group becomes just another activity that’s last on the list. But with all that stuff going on, youth may still be lonely. Youth group should take them out of the middle of everything so that we can see each as a person.”